Saavedra's challenge: which tests are necessary?

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Today’s Chronicle has a story about how difficult it will be for HISD superintendent Abe Saavedra to choose which tests to get rid of, in his quest to reduce the amount of time spent testing students.

A good part of the article is spent debating the merits of the Stanford Achievement Test and includes these quotes from a couple of experts:

“Testing is just a way to get information about students’ learning, and we have far too much testing going on,” said Thomas Haladyna, an Arizona State University professor specializing in standardized test research. “When it comes down to which tests are most useful, that would be the TAKS. The Stanford would be the least useful because it’s not aligned with Texas’ standards.”


It could be the Stanford has outlived its usefulness for Houston schools, said Dworkin, the UH researcher. School ratings in both the state and federal systems are based on TAKS performance, he said.

“As we move toward No Child Left Behind, TAKS becomes the measuring stick for Texas, and it may be feasible to drop some of the norm-referenced testing — Stanford is one — especially as TAKS becomes more rigorous,” he said.

Any school district that receives federal money, for example through a program like Title I, must administer a nationally-normed test, and that is what the Stanford Achievement Test is. Saavedra often points out that 80% of HISD students qualify for federally subsidized, low income school meals. That means HISD probably gets a sizable chunk of Title I money and must adminster a test like the Stanford. It’s not just about school ratings. HISD needs to keep Title I money flowing and must follow the rules to do so. Unless Saavedra can work out some special arrangement with the Feds, there’s little he can do to get out of the Stanford.

The story also talks, generally, about the other tests HISD adminsters:

Most of the 22 standardized tests used by HISD would be difficult to discard. Some, such as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, are state-mandated. Others measure college-readiness, such as the PSAT, or identify gifted students, such as the Naglieri.

The story doesn’t list all of the 22 standardized tests, but aside from TAKS and the Stanford test, most other testing is voluntary; some tests are not conducted every year; and some are specifically targeted, to identify gifted students or special education students. They aren’t given to every student.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said this:

“If you teach the curriculum,” she said, “they should do all right on the test.”

Yes, if the basics are taught, the testing wouldn’t be as big a problem. Which leads to this excellent observation by a former HISD school board member:

[Don] McAdams agrees it’s time for a re-evaluation of the tests taken by Houston’s 209,000 students

“But I would not want to see the public fall into the trap of thinking that teaching and testing are somehow opposed to each other,” he said.

If decision-makers in Houston and elsewhere are concerned with freeing up more instructional time, “The place to start is movies, field trips and other activities that aren’t involved in supporting the curriculum and the learning process.”

Hoo boy! As a parent, I am continually amazed at the amount of time spent on everything but learning!

Saavedra has a good idea, but no one said it was going to be easy. If it was easy, someone else would have already done it.

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Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.